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"Carnage in Black and White"

April 13, 2002

Commentary by
Lauren Weinstein


The images of death and destruction are in vivid hues. The blood runs appropriately crimson. Bombs explode on belts and fall from the blue, body parts fly, tanks attack, and buildings explode with all the resolution and brilliant spectrum that modern video technology can provide. To those of us staring into our television screens watching the violence of 9-11, the battles in Afghanistan, or the insanity on parade which has long described the Middle East, it seems a bizarre, horrible world of color -- a fantasy world brought to us from the depths of hell.

Yet the major protoganists on all sides -- the leaders and their spokespersons striving for the hearts and minds of their respective flocks and public opinion at large, tend to portray these struggles in the starkest of purely black and white imagery. It's a time-tested propaganda technique, with a history of use reaching back towards the dawn of civilization, popular regardless of political persuasions or religious leanings.

Black and white is easy for people to understand. No need to trouble them with the shaded nuances of shifting alliances, unseen political maneuverings, or clandestine manipulations and operations. Keep the message simple. The basic script is well known, usually some variation on "You're either with us, or you're against us -- there's no middle ground." It's a message we've heard from all sides over the years -- from George W. Bush relating to fighting terrorism, from Osama bin Laden attempting to rally the faithful, from Vladimir Lenin as he advanced his Socialist revolution, and from so many other personages, both revered and despised.

Such simplistic pronouncements, whether expressed by our enemies or spoken ostensibly on our own behalf, should always be highly suspect. The reality is that there's inevitably a range of complex views and convoluted paths in all human affairs. But it's frequently expedient (yet quite often an expression of genuinely heartfelt beliefs regarding what's best for their peoples) for leaders to try suppress consideration of the whys and wherefores of situations, and to concentrate instead only on their favored task at hand -- defining the Enemy -- the darkest of rhetorical targets.

There are other similar black and white approaches as well. Putting a specific, personalized face on your enemy has long been a popular ploy. To the Palestinians, it's Sharon. To the Israelis, it's Arafat. To Bush, it is (or rather was) Osama bin Laden. I say "was" since in all cases this type of designation is subject to change. After all, bin Laden was at one time a designated ally of the West.

As in Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," you can't hold the audience's attention forever if you can't reach your target, so flexibility in assigning the face of the enemy is key. When Osama proved elusive, it was time to trot out the Attorney General to publicly designate the "American Taliban" -- John Walker Lindh -- as the new visage of evil, the actual details of what appears to be an increasingly complicated and convoluted case notwithstanding. Similarly, some in the Arab countries focus their attacks on the personifications of their perceived enemies in Israel and further abroad, the actual facts often taking a backseat to the propagandistic shortcuts of the moment. For all sides in these conflicts, Evil must have a face.

Stirring the population to a frenzy does not however guarantee success at battle, or necessarily anything other than spiraling escalation. The black and white approach can return to harshly bite, when the realities of situations no longer can be pounded, prodded, squeezed, or cajoled into their assigned public relations cubbyholes.

So it now appears in the Middle East, where once seemingly simple and "obviously" correct statements, such as "we will not make deals with terrorists," have become increasingly muddied and subjected to spin. Do the main players in the region even agree on the definition of terrorist, any more so than we can reach agreement on the definition of obscenity within the U.S.?

We know that killing innocent people is a horrible evil, yet throughout history we find individuals defined simultaneously as terrorists and as freedom fighters, depending on which side was doing the defining. Self-defense? War crimes? Resistance? Murder? Leader? Terrorist? The terms interlock and blur, and the pronouncements seem to twist and warp as each side attempts to gain an upper hand, both linguistically and on the battlefield, while soldiers and civilians alike continue to be killed.

The losers in these "black and white" conflagrations go far beyond the abstract concepts of truth and peace, to include the resulting millions of lives lost over the centuries. For all the claimed advancements and modern outlooks, the world's populations are still collectively falling for the same old lines, and playing by the same macabre rules, as our ancestors have for uncountable generations. Perhaps we'll finally realize the folly of this approach before it's too late. Otherwise, given the asymmetric threats and weapons of mass destruction now proliferated around the planet, it appears very likely that the color scheme of the future will be very, very dark indeed.

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Lauren Weinstein

For information about the author, please see: http://www.vortex.com/lauren

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